Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

The Petri Dish Platter – Lab-Grown Meat?

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Eating meat is expensive – not only in dollars spent, but at a tremendous cost to the environment in greenhouse gas emissions, among other insults . Greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide which trap solar energy and warm the earth’s surface. First, some statistics:

  • Producing a half-pound hamburger releases as much greenhouse gas into the atmosphere as driving a typical gas-powered passenger vehicle for 37 miles.  Producing a half-pound of potatoes is equivalent to only 0.10 mile.
  • It takes 14 trillion gallons of irrigation water to produce feed for U.S. livestock.

According to a 2013 report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock business accounts for about 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions originating from human activity. This is even larger than the global transportation contribution. It is projected that worldwide meat consumption will grow by 73% between 2010 and 2050,  mainly in Asia primarily due to higher incomes. Eating beef can result in a higher carbon footprint than eating pork, chicken or fish.

Can we grow edible meat without having to raise or slaughter animals and/or harm the environment?  There is growing interest in this process that would provide protein-rich food no matter what  climate or environmental factors exist and we don’t have to kill any living creatures.

About 30% of the earth’s ice-free land is used for grazing livestock and growing animal feed. Growing meat in a lab would free up much of that land for new forests that can help pull carbon dioxide out of the air. Meat would not have to shipped around the globe if production centers were closer to the consumer.

So far, only small amounts of meat as thin strips have been produced in a lab. When the layer gets more than a few cell layers thick cells begin to die off. They need a constant supply of nutrients delivered by the blood in the body along with waste removal. Researchers are trying to develop an in vitro system that works as well. We need to also develop an efficient system to make the muscle cells “bulk” up as they do in the body with exercise. The hurdles are technological, not scientific. Further progress has been slow because only private funding has been available.

There are social acceptance barriers as well. There is the “yuk” factor and some people find it morally repugnant in that they think it is disgusting or that contamination may result. Some people think that killing living animals is also repugnant, e.g. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Some people relate lab grown meat to genetically modified foods (which they are not) and the negative perceptions of factory farming (which it is not). In fact, the process would eliminate the need somewhat for both of these processes. As far as contamination problems – we currently are faced with bacterial contamination of livestock produced meat and have to deal with outbreaks of bird flu and rarely mad cow disease.  Our meat is often contaminated with antibiotics that contribute to bacterial antibiotic resistance.

What about the taste? Some point out that flavor in chicken nuggets and sausages are artificially produced with salt and all kinds of additives are added for flavor. A publicity stunt has already been tested in 2013 when a food scientist produced a cultured patty. The tasters reported it was bland but not disgusting and the lack of fat was very noticeable.

I do not doubt that eventually the hurdles will be overcome but not any time soon will we see it in our supermarkets. More than likely, thin strips of lab-grown meat will make its first appearance in a highly processed product such as sausage or ground beef – not as a steak. And even then, consumer acceptance is the key for its success.



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